Sunshine and 60 degrees – not what you associate with London in March, right? It’s not what Londoners expect either, judging from the difficulty in finding sunglasses to replace those I’d deliberately left in my car before I left. But 60 and sunny it was, with a few exceptions, when I co-chaperoned a study abroad trip to the Old Blighty over spring break. My English professor friend (and fellow food-obsessive) Lee was teaching a class on 18th Century London and needed someone to come along with him to make sure none of the fifteen students he was taking tried to go native. Since I dabble in the philosophy of the period and was presumed to be sane and reasonably good company, I got to go along. The students we took were a delight, the weather, as noted, unusually cooperative, and the sights sightworthy (apart from the standard stuff, I particularly recommend the National Observatory in Greenwich and Sir John Soane’s house for anyone making the trip). Students had evenings and a couple of days off from class-related Londoning, and since our travel and lodging was covered, Lee and I decided that we could splurge a little, or, as it turned out, a lot. England used to have a reputation for bland and overcooked food (prepared, if you were rich enough, by your own French chef: vide the wrangling over Anatole in Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster novels). Now it is known as a hotbed of culinary innovation that seeks also to revive the forgotten meaty riches of British food traditions.
Work recently required a trip to the Bay Area. There’s hardly anything that hasn’t already been said in praise of eating out there, but to those of you landlocked here in the upper Midwest, I present to you two words together that until now you have almost certainly kept apart: sushi burrito. While it sounds like some foul concoction that might spew from the kitchens of the corporate food-fusionists at Taco Bell, it is, in fact, perhaps the world’s most perfect lunch food. Most, upon hearing the name, think: sushi in a tortilla. Rest assured no tortillas are harmed or otherwise utilized in the making of the sushi burrito. (Though why people tend to recoil when they think of sushi in a tortilla, I do not know. Rarely does a tortilla make anything worse. Think about it: anything non-liquid that is good on its own could, in principle, make a good filling for a tortilla.) No, the sushi burrito is essentially just a sushi roll the diameter and length of a standard issue burrito — so seaweed where the tortilla would go — eaten in the same fashion: by stuffing the whole thing a bit at a time into one’s face while doing one’s best to make sure any dropped bits land where fingers can fetch them. I had two such works of magnificence in my days in the Bay, both in downtown SF near where I was conferring, the first at Sushi Taka, and the second at the small local chain Sushiritto, whose name mericifully saves you a syllable’s work when saying, thus giving you more time to eat their eponymous product. At the latter I had the Geisha’s Kiss, a raw tuna wonder that was good enough to make up for its name.
Better, though, was the shrimp tempura burrito at Sushi Taka. The tempura was like a culinary San Andreas fault line running through each bite: its crunch shook all the flavors together into soul-satisfying perfection.
An added bonus: with each burrito came a small cup of miso soup, produced like magic from a machine that looked like one of those devices from which “espresso” drinks now spew in every convenience store and gas station. The West Coast truly does deserve its reputation as being on the leading edge of technological culture. And the sushi burrito, well, I doubt we’ll see anything like that here in Michigan for at least a decade.
Another highlight of the Thanksgiving trip west: gorging on raw oysters with my dad. Whole Foods had six different varieties on sale at coastal prices, and, since he was buying, we split five dozen over two nights, narrowing the six down to our favorite three for the second round.
It seemed a little crazy eating shellfish at the foot of the Rockies, but I comforted myself with the thought that oysters have been shipped live inland for well over a century (packed in ice, they stay alive for long periods of time). So unlike the fish flown in overnight from the west coast or Hawaii that local chefs here in Kalamazoo proudly avail themselves of (in our farm-to-table restaurants no less), oysters can, at least in principle, be sustainably consumed pretty far inland.
Thankfully I didn’t have to eat real rocky mountain oysters.